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Week 1 Blog: A recap of the news

Friday, September 10

Living the dream: Steelers No. 1 pick Najee Harris will be among a handful of the team's rookies to play this week against the Bills, including one of three who are slated to definitely start on offense.

For Harris, the reality of it all is he is living his dream.

"What I always wanted to do and achieve in my life is to make it to the NFL," said Harris. "As far as rookies, there's going to be a lot of rookies to have a lot of opportunities. We're all excited. We're all ready. Just talking to the other guys, they're excited too. They can't wait to get their feet wet and having their first game.

"Me, I'm always ready no matter what. I don't really feel the pressure or anything like that. Being the first game, I am going to be really excited. I am always happy to go out there and play.

"Anytime I get to be out there and play with the guys, it's always fun and exciting. So, can't wait for my first real game with the Steelers."

Harris' NFL debut is something Steelers' fans have been anticipating because of the excitement and energy he can bring to a ground game that is in need of a shot in the arm.
"In the NFL, talent can only do so much because everybody's talented," said Harris. "It's the small stuff that really matters the most. I talk to my coach every day. It's the small things in game that people don't see on television that matter so much in the game. It's a game within the game. That's what we always used to say. It's a game within the game because it's a lot of stuff that people don't know what's going on. Small little movements and little things that that play a big factor to the opposing team and giving them identifications of what's going on."

Harris has been relying on different people as he preps for his first game, but the one person he has spent a lot of time talking with is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, from practice to in the locker room.

"It's the little things we talk about," said Harris of his conversation with Roethlisberger in practice on Friday. "Going wider on the play, just a tad bit so it can help him out. It's really looking at him to see the stuff that he will do. It's my alignments. It's me lining up and stuff like that. It's small things that play a big role in helping him out and helping out the team and having miscommunications on the defensive side."

Happy for him: When the Steelers signed linebacker T.J. Watt to a new five-year contract, not only did it mean the linebacker was secured in black and gold long-term, it also meant questions wouldn't be fired at players and coaches about the status of contract negotiations.

Not that it was ever a distraction for any of them, it's just a positive they don't have to field the questions any longer.

"There's a sense of relief to be quite honest with you, we can get focused on this, and not that we haven't been, but in circumstances like this I field a bunch of questions regarding it, and I like to focus my energies on the Buffalo Bills," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "He's deserving. We're glad to have him. It's good for all parties involved."

Watt was a full participant in practice the last three days, ready to go on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.

"Like I told you guys earlier in the week, I don't have any reservations about his participation," said Tomlin. "I expect him to be T.J. Watt."

He Said It: Coach Mike Tomlin on his advice to Steelers rookies as they prepare for their first NFL game:

"I'll leave that between them and I. It's always an interesting time period in their lives. A lot of excitement associated with it. These guys been dreaming about this opportunity all their lives. It's one of the elements of this journey every year that's really fun to watch them live it out and to watch their first experiences and things of that nature. They're all prepared and deserving and ready. So, I'm excited about watching them do it."

Thursday, September 9

Keeping it simple: Minkah Fitzpatrick laid it out as simple as you can. The best way to stop the unique threat the Bills offense brings is to do what you are supposed to do in the secondary.

"If you've got a man in front of you, cover him," said Fitzpatrick. "It's pretty simple. We try not to over complicate it.

"We have great defensive backs in the secondary. A lot of experience mixed in with some young guys. But we have great players that match up well against them. They do have a lot of talent. They do have a lot of experience as well. We just have to win those one-on-one battles."

It all starts with quarterback Josh Allen, who had a breakout season in 2020 and has already been mentioned in the conversation for NFL MVP for 2021, without a game even being played. Allen brings a multi-dimensional threat, with the ability to break it wide open with his arm or get out of the pocket and cause damage with his feet. The defense knows they are going to have to be on point all game and try to disguise coverages when they can.

"I think if you do a good job with any disguise, I think you can trick anybody," said Fitzpatrick. "You're not going to be doing it every play. But I think Josh is a smart guy. He is experienced. He started every game the last four years which is a lot of experience. He has learned a lot. It is tough to trick him. We're still going to go in there and do what we have to do to play the game within the game.

"He is a good decision maker. He is never going to put the ball in a bad spot. He is also an athlete, so he is going to extend plays with his feet. If he sees something he doesn't like, he is going to escape out of the pocket and he has great receivers that can get open after the scramble. He uses his IQ along with his athleticism."

Allen helped lead the Bills to a 26-15 win over the Steelers last year in Orchard Park, completing 24 of 43 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns. He also added six carries for 28 yards. Fitzpatrick said the key to stopping him this year isn't changing the game plan, but rather executing it better.  

"I think we have to do a better job of executing our plan, keeping him in the pocket. I don't think our plan has changed too much from last year," said Fitzpatrick. "Last year we strayed away from our execution and tried to do too much with the guys we were containing and allowed him to get out of the pocket."

The one aspect the defense will have in their favor this time around is cornerback Joe Haden. He didn't play in the game last year and is expected to be a big factor this time around.

"I think it's definitely a game changer," said Fitzpatrick of having Haden. "Joe is a great, great player. Experienced guy. A guy a lot of quarterbacks shy away from. Having him out there is going to give the opposing team hesitation throwing to that side."

Plenty of confidence: The Steelers defense finished the 2020 season ranked No. 1 in the AFC and No. 3 in the NFL in overall defense.

Without many changes to the overall look of the unit, Cameron Heyward has confidence in the group heading into the 2021 season, which begins on Sunday in Buffalo against a solid Bills team who are among the preseason favorites in the conference.

"I feel very confident in our group," said Heyward. "I think we have a very sound unit, from back end to the front end. I feel like we have a lot of moving parts, but a good blend of old and new. I liked that we meshed early because it's going be on us. There's going to be a lot of hiccups on the other side with a lot of newer guys, so the defense has got to be very steady."

The offense will have a lot of new faces, with three to four rookies potentially starting. But on defense it's a group of seasoned veterans, with a few young guys peppered in, who have been running the same defense for a while now.

"This league is a copycat league, and some people take stuff from other places, but I think for us it's becoming more comfortable and we're able to call it and understand what it takes to apply it on the field," said Heyward. "Down and distance wise, situational wise. And then what they're just given to you. We're always a team that likes to find the duck in an offensive line and we'd like to exploit that."

The Bills won't be an easy team to exploit though. The Bills beat the Steelers, 26-15, and quarterback Josh Allen is a preseason favorite by some to win league MVP honors. Allen threw for 4,544 yards in 2020, with 37 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. He also rushed for 421 yards and eight touchdowns. 

"The thing about him that makes them more dangerous is he's a north-south runner," said Heyward. "Once he gets going downhill, he's going to bleed in and kill your defense. That's what we're trying to clean up now."

In his corner: Cameron Heyward was the latest player to speak out about T.J. Watt's contract situation, saying similar things to what Ben Roethlisberger said the day before.

"We all feel like T.J. should be paid," said Heyward. "He's putting in the time, the work. He's a productive player. He's been out here. He doesn't miss many games. He's a game changer.

"This guy has been a contributor for us for a long time and where he got drafted, we were very lucky. We all knew he was going to be a player here, and he's answered the call and done more."

While players are being asked about the contract situation, Heyward said it isn't a distraction for any of the players.

"It's not a distraction," said Heyward. "This is what every person has to go through in their job, it just gets more publicized here. T.J. has been a professional. He's come out to practice. He's locked in during meetings. And that's where it's at."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 1 matchup against the Buffalo Bills

He said it: Cameron Heyward on Ben Roethlisberger and how he has grown in his leadership role:
"He's learning how to lead even more. It's really cool to see him elevate guys, make them the stars they are today. He put JuJu (Smith-Schuster) on the map. JuJu caught the ball, but Ben was always working with him. You look at young guys like Chase Claypool how how's he going to respond. There's a multitude of guys that Ben has taken under his wing and helped learn."

Wednesday, September 8

Continuing the process: For Pat Freiermuth it truly doesn't matter what the depth chart says.

Yes, if you look at who the starter is at tight end it does say Eric Ebron 'or' Pat Freiermuth, the rookie second round pick out of Penn State.

But in Freiermuth's eyes, his role will be whatever is asked of him on game day.

"The depth chart is the depth chart," said Freiermuth. "It doesn't really reflect what my role is in the game. Coming into camp my goal was to have the biggest role I could. If that was on special teams, offense or both, that is what I was going to do. I came into work every single day, put my head down and obviously I will continue that process. I got a good foundation in camp and will stick to that during the season."

Ebron has been a go-to source for Freiermuth ever since he arrived in Pittsburgh, the veteran doing everything he can to help the rookie adapt.

"Ebron's been great," said Freiermuth. "He's been awesome with me and just kind of teaching me the ropes of being a tight end in the league. He's been very successful in his career so far and I'm just picking up little things from him. It's been awesome and he's been awesome to work with and learn from."

Another person who has been someone Freiermuth can lean on, depend on for help, is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger, who is in his 18th season, has been a stabilizing force for many of the rookies, keeping them even-keeled as they head into their first real NFL test.

"He's helped, just with the flow of the game and all that kind of stuff, and what to expect," said Freiermuth. "He's been huge in that. I'm very good at my routes out here. But making sure I don't speed them up in the game just because in the games the lights are on and everyone's watching. He's helped a lot."

As he prepares to play in his first NFL game, Freiermuth said attention to detail is one of the key factors he has focused on. Small things mean a lot, but so do big things, like blocking. Early in training camp Coach Mike Tomlin was asked about Freiermuth's catch-passing ability. His question, though, was can he block. It's something Freiermuth did at Penn State and continues to fine tune at the NFL level.

"Obviously you're never where you want to be," said Freiermuth. "I have shown some good blocking ability. I think I need to work on the stuff at the point of attack. That's a work in progress. I think overall I've shown that I can block, and I'm a capable and willing blocker. There's some things I need to work on a lot, and I'm looking forward to that process."

One accord: When you have a new group working together, like the Steelers do on their offensive line, every minute counts. That is why when practice ended on Wednesday, the line didn't stop working.

"Trying to build continuity with each other, get on the same page just with everything in our schemes and our plays and our fits," said rookie center Kendrick Green. "Just trying to get on one accord. That's pretty much it."

Green, who was limited in practice with a thumb injury, is one of two rookies listed as starters on the depth chart, Dan Moore Jr. the other one at left tackle. Moore made the move to left tackle in the last few weeks after Zach Banner's injury lingered, forcing him to open the season on the Reserve/Injured List. With Moore on the left side, Chukwuma Okorafor slid over to right tackle, making getting on the same page even more important.

"I wouldn't say it's a challenge, but that's why we're doing it," said Green. "So everybody's on the same page, everybody gets those few extra reps we take out there by ourselves. Those are a few extra reps for everybody to get that much more comfortable with each other. That's how we look at it."

Green knows come Sunday in Buffalo nobody is going to care that the Steelers have five new offensive linemen than the group they put out there to open the season in 2020. And nobody certainly is going to care that in that five are two rookies.

"It's the NFL. Nobody cares if you're a rookie," said Green. "Nobody cares if you've been playing for 30 years. Right? We're all one and the same. You've got to go out there and do your job. That's just kind of how us and a lot of the other young guys look at it too."

Green did admit, though, that it helps that the Steelers have four rookies who will be making a quick impact on the offense in himself and Moore, as well as Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth.

"We kind of lean on each other, try and keep each other's spirits up every day," said Green. "I feel like as a rookie class, we're pretty close, especially on offense. I'm super close with Najee, super close with Pat and Dan. We're all pretty tight together. I'd say we definitely lean on each other for support, and I think we're doing great. Personally, I think we'll be fine."

Options exist: The Steelers spent Wednesday practicing in a light rain at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, and the weather had no impact on Coach Mike Tomlin's perception of practice.

"We had a beautiful day despite the weather conditions," said Tomlin. "Anytime you get an opportunity to sharpen your sword for battle it's a good day. Actually, the weather conditions provide a nice obstacle. I think we need working environments like this. We're going to play in environments like this, and the standard of expectations will still be the same. We've got to stay on our feet on both sides of the ball. We've got to do a good job in terms of our exchange game and the securing of the football. Working in an environment like this gives us an opportunity to do so."

When it came to working, like Coach alluded to during his press conference, linebacker T.J. Watt fully participated in practice for the first time this season.

"Thought he looked good," said Tomlin. "He was engaged. He's been a full participant in walk-throughs and things of that nature. He's a smart guy. He can learn from watching others and it's evident in watching him work today."

As far as inside linebacker, Tomlin said they are still working on the division of labor with Joe Schobert and Devin Bush, but he isn't giving away any secrets.

"We've got options there," said Tomlin. "We've got two guys that are 'green dot' capable, as you guys like to discuss. The reality is there are multiple helmets on the sideline, and you have the option between series to determine who that 'green dot' is. So, we'll exercise those options and leave it a little bit mystical."

Monday, September 6

A big leap: Throughout the preseason there were signs of it, bits and pieces that have gotten the players on offense excited.

On Sunday, in the season opener against the Buffalo Bills, expect to see a whole lot more of the changes to the Steelers' offense under new coordinator Matt Canada, and Chase Claypool is excited.

"I think the offense did change, I think for the better," said Claypool, the second-year receiver. "I think it's a lot more fun to run the offense, we got a lot more options and versatility with the offense. Some of the stuff we're calling it's the same thing, we just have some new tags we're adding on to it. It's a similar offense, we're just adding to it."

Claypool made a splash his rookie season, stepping up big for the offense with 62 receptions for 873 yards, a 14.1-yard average, and nine receiving touchdowns, while adding 10 carries for 16 yards and two rushing touchdowns.

He opened plenty of eyes, especially in Week 4 when he scored four touchdowns in the Steelers 38-29 win over the Philadelphia Eagles at Heinz Field and was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week. Claypool had seven receptions for 110 yards, three of those seven catches were touchdowns, and also rushed for a two-yard score.

Claypool became the first rookie in team history to score four touchdowns in a game, and only the third player in team history to do so, the last one when Roy Jefferson caught four touchdown passes against Atlanta on Nov. 3, 1968, while also becoming only the third player in team history to score 24 points in a game. Claypool also became the first Steelers rookie with a receiving and rushing touchdown in the same game since Franco Harris did it at Buffalo in 1972.

In his second season, though, he wants more.

"I feel like if I regressed, I've done a disservice to myself," said Claypool. "So, I see a big leap going into the second year."

It's going to start off with a big challenge. The Steelers face the Bills on the road, a team many have ranked in the Top 5 of the preseason power rankings and a favorite in the AFC.

"I think it's a great challenge because the outcome of the game you have really great momentum, and then you know what to expect for the rest of the season," said Claypool. "You know what teams are out there who are really good like Buffalo."

Getting a leg up: Pressley Harvin III didn't know how he was going to learn of the news that he beat out Jordan Berry for the Steelers punter position, but the rookie seventh-round pick didn't expect to hear it directly from Berry.

"I found out in a weird way, but a very respectful way," said Harvin. "Actually, Jordan Berry was the one who told me. Right after practice he just came up to me and told me I got the job. It was like passing the torch. Berry is a really good guy. I appreciate him for everything.

"I have been working my entire life to try and get to this point. Seeing things finally come together and to actually have those words said to me was a true honor. I am just excited for the next step now."

Harvin, who played at Georgia Tech, won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter in 2020, the first African American to win the award in the 21-year history of it. Harvin, 6-0, 255 pounds, brings a solid punter to the mix for the Steelers. Harvin led the nation and set a Georgia Tech and ACC record with a 49-yard punting average. He was a unanimous first-team All-American, becoming only the third Georgia Tech player to earn that accomplishment.

And now he has another impressive accomplishment. Making the 53-man roster.

"The front office and the coaches believed in me enough to bring me here, but I still have to put the work on the table when I get here," said Harvin. "That is just how I came in. I came in and tried to fly under the radar. I came in humble. I am still humble. That is how I am. Come to work, continue to get your feet up under you and learn. You catch on quickly. Like Coach T(omlin) says, this is a moving train, you don't want to get left behind. Just continue to come in and work. Every day is an interview for me. I am a rookie but that doesn't mean anything. If you keep working, this can be a 10-year career."

Harvin knows working every day is the key, because it's that effort that earned him the spot.

"The biggest aspect is being a specialist, being a good punter, is producing on the field, good field position for our defense, as well as holding," said Harvin of what he thinks helped him win the job. "I've continued to embrace the fact that holding is a big part of this game. I just put myself in a position where I can show the team, coaches that I can do this at this level. I come to work every day on it.

"We had a pretty good day today. We hit everything on all cylinders. Just continuing to get that confidence will help me."

When it comes to holding, developing a good relationship with kicker Chris Boswell is a key, something he is immersing himself in.

"Just the repetition on the field," said Harvin. "We come out every single day, he might not hit a field goal, but he is right beside me on the field making sure I am putting the ball in the spot, making sure I am spinning the ball the right way. Just the ins and outs of the whole thing. Over time accumulation of getting more and more reps together. Boz is a good help. If it wasn't for these older guys showing me the ins and outs of this thing, I don't think I would be here today. It's them making themselves selfless and helping me catch up is one of the biggest things where the confidence came from."

Depth chart update: With the season starting on Sunday in Buffalo against the Bills, the team released the newest depth chart, with some pieces coming together on the offensive line.

The Steelers will start two rookies on the line, third-round pick Kendrick Green at center and fourth-round pick Dan Moore Jr. at left tackle. With Moore Jr. at left tackle, Chukwuma Okorafor slides over to right tackle, with Zach Banner now on the Reserve/Injured List. Rounding out the offensive line will be Kevin Dotson at left guard and Trai Turner at right guard.

It's no secret there will be another rookie starting on offense with first-round pick Najee Harris at running back. 

With a load of talent at receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are all listed as starters. And at tight end there is an option, with it listed as 'Eric Ebron or Pat Freiermuth,' another rookie, as the starter.

The defense is similar to the depth chart listed at the start of training camp with the only change at defensive end, where Chris Wormley will start with Stephon Tuitt on the Reserve/Injured List.

The full Steelers depth chart can be viewed here.

The Steelers prepare for the Week 1 matchup against the Buffalo Bills

Aye, aye captain: After practice the team announced the captains for the 2021 season, and the players selected Ben Roethlisberger on offense, Cameron Heyward on defense and Derek Watt on special teams.

Roethlisberger, who is in his 18th season, has been the team's offensive captain 13 times in his career, including 11consecutive seasons. 

Heyward, who is in his 11th season, is a defensive captain for the seventh consecutive year. 

This is the first time Watt has been voted the special teams captain, after joining the Steelers in 2020 as an unrestricted free agent and immediately making an impact on the unit.